Perceval, the Story of the Grail

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Perceval arrives at the hermitage in a 15th-century illustration of Perceval Perceval a la recluserie.jpg
Perceval arrives at the hermitage in a 15th-century illustration of Perceval

Perceval, the Story of the Grail (French : Perceval ou le Conte du Graal) is the unfinished fifth verse romance by Chrétien de Troyes, written by him in Old French in the late 12th century. Later authors added 54,000 more lines in what are known collectively as the Four Continuations, [1] as well as other related texts. Perceval is the earliest recorded account of what was to become the Quest for the Holy Grail [2] but describes only a golden grail (a serving dish) in the central scene, does not call it "holy" and treats a lance, appearing at the same time, as equally significant.



Perceval is dedicated to Chrétien's patron Philip I, Count of Flanders. [3] It was written in Old French during the 1180s or 1190s and likely left unfinished because of the death of either Philip in 1191, while crusading at Acre, or the author Chrétien de Troyes himself.

Chrétien claimed to be working from a source given to him by Philip. The poem relates the adventures and growing pains of the young knight Perceval, but the story breaks off. There follows an adventure of Gawain of similar length that also remains incomplete. There are some 9,000 lines in total, whereas Chrétien's other romances seldom exceed 7,000 lines.


The story's episode of Gawain on the Perilous Bed (lit perilleux) as engraved in a 14th-century ivory Gauvain au lit perilleux (Louvre, OA 12522).jpg
The story's episode of Gawain on the Perilous Bed (lit périlleux) as engraved in a 14th-century ivory

The poem opens with Perceval, whose mother has raised him apart from civilization in the forests of Wales. While out riding one day, he encounters a group of knights and realizes he wants to be one. Despite his mother's objections, the boy heads to King Arthur's court, where a young girl predicts greatness for him. Sir Kay taunts him and slaps the girl, but Perceval amazes everyone by killing a knight who had been troubling King Arthur and taking his vermilion armor. He then sets out for adventure. He trains under the experienced Gornemant, then falls in love with and rescues Gornemant's niece Blanchefleur. Perceval captures her assailants and sends them to King Arthur's court to proclaim Perceval's vow of revenge on Sir Kay.

Perceval remembers that his mother fainted when he went off to become a knight, and goes to visit her. During his journey, he comes across the Fisher King fishing in a boat on a river, who invites him to stay at his castle. While there, Perceval witnesses a strange procession in which young men and women carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabra. Then a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal . Finally another maiden carried a silver platter. They passed before him at each course of the meal. Perceval, who had been trained by his guardian Gornemant not to talk too much, remains silent through all of this. He wakes up the next morning alone and resumes his journey home. He encounters a girl in mourning, who admonishes him for not asking about the grail, as that would have healed the wounded king. He also learns that his mother has died.

Perceval captures another knight and sends him to King Arthur's court with the same message as before. King Arthur sets out to find Perceval and, upon finding him, attempts to convince him to join the court. Perceval unknowingly challenges Sir Kay to a fight, in which he breaks Sir Kay's arm and exacts his revenge. Perceval agrees to join the court, but soon after a loathly lady enters and admonishes Perceval once again for failing to ask the Fisher King whom the grail served.

No more is heard of Perceval except in a short later passage, in which a hermit explains that the grail contains a single host that miraculously sustains the Fisher King’s wounded father. The loathly lady announces other quests that the Knights of the Round Table proceed to take up and the remainder of the poem deals with Arthur's nephew and best knight Gawain, who has been challenged to a duel by a knight who claims Gawain had slain his lord. Gawain offers a contrast and complement to Perceval's naiveté as a courtly knight having to function in un-courtly settings. An important episode is Gawain's liberation of a castle whose inhabitants include his long-lost mother and grandmother as well as his sister Clarissant, whose existence was unknown to him. This tale also breaks off unfinished. [4]

The continuations and prologues

Over the following 50 years multiple different poets attempted to continue the story begun by Chrétien. [1] [5]

First Continuation

The First Continuation added 9,500 to 19,600 lines (depending on the manuscripts) to the romance. [1] It was once attributed to Wauchier de Denain, and is sometimes called the Pseudo-Wauchier Continuation for that reason. It exists in a short, a mixed, and a long version; the short was the earliest and the most loosely linked to Chrétien's work, while the mixed is considered to be the latest, drawing on both earlier versions. Roger Sherman Loomis believed that the short version, which was added to an existing Perceval manuscript ten or twenty years later, represents a version of the story that was originally independent of Chrétien's. [6]

The First Continuation picks up the narrative of Gawain's adventures where Chrétien left off: his mother and grandmother are reunited with Arthur, and Gawain's sister Clarissant marries Guiromelant. In the long version, Gawain opposes the marriage and rides off in anger, reaching the Grail Castle. After further adventures he rejoins Arthur (and the long version rejoins the short) and helps him besiege a rebel's castle.

The First Continuation is notable for its cavalier approach to the narrative agenda set by Chrétien. In particular it includes a seemingly independent romance, which in the long version spans over 6,000 lines: the Livre de Caradoc , starring Arthur's knight Caradoc, which explains how the hero got his nickname "Briefbras", or "Short Arm". [7] All versions of the First Continuation describe Gawain's visit to a Grail castle unlike Chrétien's, a scene that introduces the motif of a broken sword that can only be mended by the hero destined to heal the Fisher King and his lands. Gawain is not this hero and he fails. The final episode recounts the misadventures of Gawain's brother Guerrehet (Gaheris or Gareth) who is humiliated by a dwarf knight before avenging himself and a mysteriously murdered stranger. In the closing scene, he returns to court asleep on a swan boat.

Second Continuation

Shortly after the First Continuation was completed, another author added 13,000 lines to the total. This Second Continuation, also known as just the Perceval Continuation, has been sometimes attributed to Wauchier de Denain as well. Making extensive use of motifs and themes drawn from Chrétien and the First Continuation, its story has Perceval returning to the Grail Castle and repairing his sword, but a hairline fissure that remains in the blade symbolizes his still-flawed psyche. [1]

Third Continuation

The Third Continuation, also known as Manessier's Continuation, added 10,000 lines and an ending. [1] Manessier wrapped up many of the loose ends from the previous authors, and includes several episodes from other works, including the "Joie de la Cour" adventure from Chrétien's Erec and Enide [8] and Calogrenant's death as told in the Queste del Saint Graal section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. [9] The tale ends with the Fisher King's death and Perceval's ascension to his throne. After seven peaceful years, Perceval goes off to live as a hermit in the woods, where he dies shortly after. Manessier proposes that he took the Grail, the Lance, and the silver plate with him to Heaven. [1]

Fourth Continuation

The Fourth Continuation, or Gerbert's Continuation, added 17,000 lines. [1] The author, usually considered to be Gerbert de Montreuil, composed his version independently of Manessier, and probably around the same time. He tried to tie up loose ends left by Chrétien and the other continuations and creates his own additions, notably a complete Tristan episode. Gerbert's Continuation seems not to have enjoyed great popularity; it survives in only two manuscripts, one of which is heavily damaged, as an interpolation between the Second and Manessier Continuations. It is likely Gerbert wrote an ending for the story, but it has been excised from both surviving copies to facilitate its position between the two other continuations.


The Elucidation is an anonymous Old French poem of the early 13th century, which was written to serve as a prologue to Chrétien's Perceval. The poem counts 484 lines and cites one Master Blihis as a source for its contents. [10]


Another prologue to Perceval consisted of 800 verses preserved in two 13-century manuscripts. In the poem, Perceval's father (who is left unnamed in Chrétien's original) is called Bliocadran. [11]


Perlesvaus, also called Li Hauz Livres du Graal (The High History of the Holy Grail), is an Old French Arthurian romance dating to the first decade of the 13th century. It purports to be a continuation of Perceval, the Story of the Grail, but it has been called the least canonical Arthurian tale because of its striking differences from other versions. It survives in three manuscripts, two fragments, and two 16th-century printings. [12] [13]

Perceval's influence on medieval literature

Though Chrétien did not complete his romance, it had an enormous impact on the literary world of the Middle Ages. Perceval introduced an enthusiastic Europe to the grail and all versions of the story, including those that made the grail "Holy", probably derive directly or indirectly from it. The grail in Perceval has the power to heal the Fisher King so it may have been seen as a mystical or holy object by readers. [14]

The opening lines of the 14c Welsh language 'Peredur' from the Red Book of Hergest; Jesus College, Oxford (MS 111) version Jesus-College-MS-111 00322 161v (cropped) Peredur.jpg
The opening lines of the 14c Welsh language 'Peredur' from the Red Book of Hergest; Jesus College, Oxford (MS 111) version

Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival , one of the greatest works of medieval Germany, is based largely on Chrétien's poem. [15] When comparing Wolfram's Parzival to Chrétien's Perceval some scholars not only suggest that the structure is different, but that Chrétien focuses on the religious context of knighthood while Eschenbach focuses on other aspects. [16] [17] Another version is the Welsh Peredur, son of Efrawg , one of the Three Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion , though in this case the connection to the French work is unclear. [18] [19] Sir Perceval of Galles is a Middle English adaptation that some scholars believe is a comedic interpretation, and which does not mention the Grail. [20] [21]

Interpretations on historical context

It is said by some scholars that during the time Chrétien was writing Perceval, there was a political crisis taking place between the monarchy and the aristocracy, which included his patron, Philip of Flanders, which may have influenced Chrétien’s work. [22]

There are possible parallels in Perceval with the Irish mythological race of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The race has three central talismans- a spear, a cauldron, and a sword- that correlate with the spear, grail, and sword present in Perceval. [4]

Chrétien's Perceval includes many similarities to the Irish saga The Boyhood Deeds of Finn. The main character, Finn, is raised in isolation and undergoes many adventures akin to those of Perceval, suggesting that the narrative may have been a source of inspiration for Chrétien. [4]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Grigsby, John L. (1991). "Continuations of Perceval". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 99–100. New York: Garland. ISBN   0-8240-4377-4.
  2. O'Gorman, Richard (1991). "Grail". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 212–213. New York: Garland. ISBN   0-8240-4377-4.
  3. Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Chrétien de Troyes". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 88–91. New York: Garland. ISBN   0-8240-4377-4.
  4. 1 2 3 de Troyes, Chrétien; Raffel, Burton; Duggan, Joseph J. (1999). Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Yale University Press. ISBN   9780300133226.
  5. English translations of the Continuations can be found in Bryant, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, 1996.
  6. Loomis, Roger Sherman (1963, 21991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol , ch. VI. Princeton. ISBN   0-691-02075-2.
  7. Arthur, Ross Gilbert (translator) (1996). Caradoc. In Three Arthurian Romances: Poems from Medieval France: Caradoc, the Knight With the Sword, the Perilous Graveyard. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN   0-460-87577-9.
  8. Owen, Arthurian Romances.
  9. The scene in question appears in Lacy, Lancelot-Grail, Volume 4, p. 61.
  10. "The Elucidation: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects". Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  11. "Bliocadran: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects". Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  12. Busby, Keith (1991). "Perlesvaus". In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 358–359. New York: Garland. ISBN   0-8240-4377-4.
  13. The Arthurian Handbook, pp. 80–81
  14. Ramm, Ben. A Discourse for the Holy Grail in Old French Romance Ed. Sarah Kay. New York: D.S. Brewer, 2007 (pp. 4-7 and 110-121)
  15. Wolfram claims his source is not Chrétien but an otherwise unknown Provençal poet named Kyot; this is not accepted by the majority of scholars. See Hatto, A. T. (1980). "Introduction to a Second Reading." In Wolfram von Eschenbach; Hatto, A. T. (translator), Parzival. New York: Penguin. ISBN   0-14-044361-4.
  16. Groos, Arthur. Romancing the Grail: Genre, Science, and Quest in Wolfram's "Parzival." New York: Cornell University, 1995.
  17. Green, D.H. (1997). "Reviewed Work: Romancing the Grail: Genre, Science, and Quest in Wolfram's 'Parzival' by Arthur Groos". Medium Ævum. 66 (1): 161–162. doi:10.2307/43629944. JSTOR   43629944.
  18. Roberts, Brynly F. (1991). "Peredur". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 357–358. New York: Garland. ISBN   0-8240-4377-4.
  19. Gantz, The Mabinogion.
  20. Braswell, Mary Flowers, 1943- (1995). Sir Perceval of Galles ; and, Ywain and Gawain . Published for TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. ISBN   1-879288-60-5. OCLC   32853913.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  21. Eckhardt, Caroline D. (1974). "Arthurian Comedy: The Simpleton-Hero in "Sir Perceval of Galles"". The Chaucer Review. 8 (3): 205–220. ISSN   0009-2002. JSTOR   25093269.
  22. Pickens, Rupert T. "Le Conte du Graal." The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: A Symposium Ed. Douglas Kelly. Kentucky: French Forum, 1985 (232-286)